Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Much Ado About A Banana?

Much Ado About A Banana?

 [Disclaimer: This is a pretty small post about how to buy and eat bananas and some (a little) sermonizing towards the end. And guaranteed not to drive you bananas on reading it]

Last week I was in asked a delicate question by a comparative stranger. a question which I couldn’t answer fully to him at that time. A question which required an elaborate, detailed reply which I am now going to inflict on unwary and poor you. The question was this "why did I not bargain with the banana seller?”

To understand the gravity of this situation, let’s rewind back a little. The question was asked to me in the streets of Dharwad, a fair to middling sized city in the north-eastern part of Karnataka, near the Goa border. And though Dharwad is in the state of Karnataka often called India's Nevada (Bangalore = Las Vegas, so Karnataka = Nevada, getit?), the good citizens of Dharwad seem to prefer an healthy lifestyle- of going to bed early and waking up early in time.

So by the time I had my dinner and went out for a post dinner walk on the streets of Dharwad, along with my local guide, it was getting to be around nine or nine thirty in the night and the streets were emptying fast as the shops were downing shutters and everyone was hurrying home to get a good night’s rest. It was in such a busy time in the life of Dharwad that I got the sudden and inexplicable urge to eat a banana, don’t ask me why.

So we stopped a road side stall, where the proprietress, an old woman with a single front tooth left in her mouth, was packing up her wares for the day and i asked her for the bananas. Despite my inadequate knowledge of Kannada we understood each other perfectly and as she gave a quotation of 3 bananas for ten rupees, i accepted her tender and gave her the contract. In other words, I gave her ten bucks and bought three bananas. And with that, me being the last customer, the old woman rolled up her entire shop (and all her wares) in one cloth and was gone for the day.

It was then that my local guide, a postgraduate student from the local university asked me that enlightening question "Sir, why did you buy those three bananas for ten rupees without bargaining? You could have at least asked for an extra banana". I guess, he was disappointed that i had overlooked his role as the local expert and taken matters in my own hands in buying that banana.

I wanted to ask him a question of my own then, something cutting and pointy, but refrained from the temptation respecting the rules of hospitality which state that a guest should not hurt his hosts’ feelings. So I kept mum. But I ask it here generally. How many of us bargain at supermarkets despite their atrocious prices and cover taxes? Do we even check the bill before we swipe a card?

So why do we check, double check and bargain hard at pavement shops and petty traders? Is it because we think they are cheating us? Or because they are making enormous profits? Or is it because we will be respected only if we bargain and otherwise thought an easy mark?

I have my own theory to offer on this topic. I guess its because we feel superior to these people, these pavement sellers and petty traders. We think they are dependent on us, on our goodwill and our money. We think we are actually doing them a favor by condescending to buy from them the same article we could have bought in an air conditioned supermarket. Examine your heart for a moment and tell me truly, if you think like this. If not, congratulations, you have no further need to read the rest of this post, you can stop here.

But the others, the rest of us who bargain at petty shops only do it because we are allowed to and because we will not be laughed off the premises by a supercilious salesperson with his nose up in the air. And so we hit those who are below us. We bargain and bargain hard for one rupee and two rupees from those for whom an extra rupee will really make the difference whether they go to bed with an empty stomach or not. We show our bargaining skills only to such people. We count our pennies only at such shops  but we would happily leave a 30% tip (on the bill) at an up market restaurant where we are made to wait an hour just to be seated. Sounds fair?

Well, if you start thinking i am making pointless accusations and ask me whether I don’t do the same; let me confess that I too was the same till a few years ago. But then I changed. I realized that relentless bargaining for a single rupee with deprived persons who make borderline profits is both wrong morally and a commentary on our egoism. To hit those who are down just because they cannot protest is a form of cowardice. And moreover all this pointless bargaining is a waste of time.

I know my financial expert friends will bawl at me for saying the above truth and I accept their argument that a rupee saved is a rupee earned. But save it in the right place with the right people. Not from the poor and helpless petty shopkeepers and pavement dwellers.

And that’s why I didn’t bargain with that old woman for reducing the price or ask her for an extra banana, just to get the feeling that I had got a better bargain than her. I told myself that my ten rupees at closing time, completely unexpected as it was, must have made sure that the old woman need not go to bed hungry that night. And i think that ten rupee was worth achieving that. Besides I got three bananas in the bargain. What more do I need?

So this was the answer I didn’t share with my local guide when I refused his expert knowledge. Some of you may think that it this is all too much about a simple banana. If so, please feel free to vent your feelings in the comments column. And for others, who think I have a valid point, please stop bargaining with the poor and downtrodden for whom a single rupee often makes a big difference in their lives. We can afford to take a loss on that rupee financially, but we gain a lot more in mental satisfaction. Trust me on this.

P.S. This post is the first in a series from my Mera Bharat Darshan Series, where I spent a few days traveling all over the southern states for a holiday and the experiences I had during the trip. Coming soon - another post from another town.


  1. Same here. There were days when I thought bargaining was a great trait but then I read something similar to this post long time ago and decided that these people's only livelihood depends on their produce and hence stopped bargaining. Sadly my bargaining skills have caught rust and I silently give the money asked even to an Auto wallah. So much so.

    Joy always,

    1. you dont bargain with an autodriver? I bow to your generosity Susan....but here i was referring to the genuinely needy and not those fakes who try to rip you off...but congrats for being a convert before me

  2. Ganesh, I so wholeheartedly agree with you on this on This one! That woman probably felt overjoyed to make that last minute sale and yes, she may have then had a good meal at night. Here, a letter to the local newspaper's editor complained about having to SEE beggars on the street saying, "My mother pays enough taxes that we should be able to go out for a nice dinner and not have to see this human trash on the street when we leave the restaurant." I could not believe the newspaper thought this was appropriate to print.
    On the lighter side, in an old Steve Martin move, 'The Father of the Bride', Steve's character has a meltdown at a grocery store and complains loudly about the fact hot dogs are sold in packages of eight while the buns are sold in packages of twelve. It was so funny but, alas, the hapless father of the bride had to get bailed out of jail by his wife who made him promise to behave himself!
    Thanks for the post!
    Robert Kaye

    1. Rob, its nice to see you here too and i am absolutely gobsmacked at reading that news you mention...which planet do these people live on? we have to share the same earth and air and water with 6 billion others and we cant close our eyes to them..i hope you posted a rejoinder to that paper